Ex-employee accused of putting child porn on district computers

The Asbury Park Press of Asbury Park, N.J., reports that a former employee of the local school district has been charged with loading child pornography onto the district’s computer system. The 27-year-old man is accused of uploading five pictures of children under the age of 16 engaging in sexual activity. The former employee, who worked for the district for six years, left for Florida last summer before any of these allegations arose.

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Maine high school’s ninth-graders get to join laptop program

The Times Record News of Brunswick, Maine, reports that Freeport High School gave out new laptop computers to all of its ninth-graders on Dec. 1. Freeport is one of just two midcoast Maine schools that has extended the state’s laptop program beyond the seventh and eighth grades.

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SIIA: Revise archaic textbook adoptions

Calling “archaic” those textbook adoption policies that preclude schools and districts from spending state funds on digital-only resources, the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA) is urging state officials to get up to date.

From content revisions to pricing structure and distribution, state rules governing approved textbooks often conflict with the very nature of continuously updated, subscription-based, online curriculum materials, SIIA pointed out.

While textbook adoption policies have posed a barrier for some time, SIIA believes now is an opportune time to raise awareness of the issue.

“The environment is shifting, and we would like state adoption standards to change so schools can at least have the option of using digital media,” said Mark Schneiderman, SIIA’s director of education policy.

“We are looking for states to update their textbook review processes so that schools that want to use software-based textbooks as the core material can do so,” he said. “It’s about giving them choice.”

Some 22 states reportedly have textbook adoption systems in place. Of these, only about 12 are in various stages of revising their policies to accommodate the unique characteristics of digital-only resources, said Mark Tullis, vice president of business development for Learning.com, a company that provides a complete online technology education curriculum called Easy Tech.

Easy Tech was one of the first digital-only curricula approved by a handful of states, including Texas, Florida, Idaho, Oklahoma, Utah, and Mississippi. “We’ve been through 12 textbooks adoptions so far,” Tullis said.

The standard approval process for textbooks is lengthy–typically a state-convened committee reviews hundreds of books for one subject per year. Approved textbooks for each subject remain in use for about six years, and then the approval process repeats.

Many electronic curriculum publishers have steered clear of textbook adoption procedures, but “the advantage of going through state adoption procedures is to qualify for full funding” from state textbook monies, Tullis said.

In states with textbook adoption policies, schools and districts that buy approved textbooks get full state funding for those items–but they typically receive only from 30 to 50 percent of the cost of unapproved curricula, he said.

Tight education budgets make full state funding an attractive goal for both schools and digital content providers, but with the way textbook adoption guidelines are currently written, getting digital-only resources approved is a challenge.

SIIA outlines these difficulties in detail in a policy brief called “State Instructional Materials Review and Adoption Reform: Rules and Processes to Support Electronic Learning Resources.” The brief was released in October to schools, states, policy makers, and SIIA members.

A common problem, for example, is that some state laws require textbooks to be purchased and distributed from a textbook depository, a physical building that houses a state’s textbooks. “That process doesn’t make sense for digital content,” Schneiderman said. “How do you distribute online content though a textbook depository?”

When Mississippi approved Learning.com’s Easy Tech as its core curriculum resource for technology education, officials had to do some fancy maneuvering to abide by the state’s rules for distributing materials through the state depository.

The state now keeps one set of logins–and where possible, a copy of each software title–in the depository, and its schools and districts must purchase their software and receive their logins and passwords through the state depository.

“We tried to take the path of least resistance to get to the end result. We negotiated with our state depository, and they were very good about it,” said Kameron Ball, director of federal programs for the Rankin County School District in Brandon, Miss., and formerly the educational technology director for the Mississippi Department of Education.

In Florida, Learning.com became an approved depository so it could distribute its curriculum there. “We did it that way because we could not reach an agreement with the Florida depository,” said Ileana Rowe, vice president of marketing for Learning.com. “It was less expensive for us to set up our own depository and accept orders online.”

State policies that specify what paper weight and type of binding approved textbooks and curriculum resources must have also restrict digital-only materials from getting approved.

Pricing and payment guidelines have become obstacles as well. For instance, some guidelines prescribe a one-time cost, whereas many digital resources charge an annual subscription fee, Schneiderman said.

Mississippi’s bonding requirement also made approval difficult to overcome. Publishers are required to take out a state bond as a way to guarantee the delivery of materials, but the bonding companies were not used to working with a technology company, Tullis said.

Another problem is that the committees of experts who review textbooks often have little or no background in educational technology.

SIIA members who have tracked how long reviewers spent accessing their products report that in many instances, reviewers never logged in–or they spent 20 minutes or less reviewing the product, Schneiderman said.

States should establish processes and provide training, he said, for how reviewers should evaluate digital curriculum resources to determine if they meet state standards.

Ball said it was a frustrating and lengthy process when Mississippi adopted its first digital-only textbook. “Going through that process really opened my eyes to how important it is to keep the policy that directs what material children use up to date,” she said.

Besides ensuring that reviewers have computer access to evaluate electronic resources, Mississippi also reworded its guidelines for textbook vendors and reviewers to make sure these didn’t exclude anyone.

For example, the state changed how textbook publishers must get approval to update their content and how they identify first-edition textbooks. Mississippi required that a hole be drilled through first-edition textbooks so teachers could easily identify them. “You can’t drill a hole through a computer, so we had to make some changes there,” Ball said.

Some policy makers who are focused on getting enough computers into classrooms might be reluctant to change policies concerning textbooks. But “we can’t continue to wait for the infrastructure to be there to give kids the resources they need to learn,” Ball said.

Gloria Bush is the coordinator of instructional technology for the Mobile County School District in Alabama, which was one of the first states to adopt an online textbook.

“I think it makes wonderful sense for our children,” she said of SIIA’s initiative. “We want to provide the most up-to-date information and reach all different learning types.”

Action needs to come soon, she added: “It’s just crucial. We can’t wait six or seven years for new materials to be issued.”

Links:

“State Instructional Materials Review and Adoption Reform: Rules and Processes to Support Electronic Learning Resources”
http://www.siia.net/govt/docs/pub/SIIAAdoptionLtrBrf.pdf

Learning.com Florida State Depository
http://depository.learning.com/FL

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Data-tracking pilot program fuels debate

In an effort to improve the quality of its higher-education data, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is planning to test the feasibility of collecting enrollment information–including names, addresses, and Social Security numbers–for each individual college and university student in the nation.

“Such statistics would, for the first time, give policy makers and consumers accurate and comprehensive information about higher education in this country,” ED spokeswoman Stephanie Babyak said in a statement.

If the pilot is successful, it could replace the current data reporting system known as the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Through this system, institutions now provide the federal government with various aggregated data such as enrollment, graduation rates, and student financial aid statistics–but much of the data are incomplete and don’t tell the whole story.

For example, a student who drops out of one school but graduates from another would simultaneously increase the dropout rate and graduation rate of schools nationwide. By collecting more data sets that are tied to each individual student, the National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), which houses the data, hopes to rectify these types of inaccuracies.

About 1,500 colleges and universities are expected to pilot the new database during the 2006-07 school year, but that ultimately depends on whether Congress will appropriate funds and require the pilot in its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

If the pilot proves successful and eventually is mandated for all institutions, it would mean every college and university in the United States would have to overhaul its databases to provide NCES with graduation rates and tuition costs for each student attending its school.

Advocates for the new database of student records say better statistics will help improve access to higher-education and financial aid programs. They also want to see greater accountability for how federal funds are spent at institutions of higher learning, especially with tuitions increasing by 10 percent each year.

“We think it will significantly improve the information we have on the affordability of higher education and student success rates,” said Paul E. Lingenfelter, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, which serves the board members of state postsecondary schools. “The information we have on the successful participation in higher education is very spotty.”

The current system only accounts for how many students enrolled and how many graduated during the time it takes to complete a particular course, but it loses track of everyone who entered the program late, everyone who left, everyone who became a part-time student, and so on. “When the student is a moving target in both time and place, there is no way you can answer these questions unless you keep track of each student,” Lingenfelter said.

Better data, Lingenfelter explained, will lead to better programs to develop and sustain great systems of higher education. “When the numbers aren’t good, it mobilizes public policy,” he said. It will also allow policy makers to answer an infinite number of questions.

Groups that represent the interests of students or private colleges and universities balk at the costs associated with being forced to change their computer systems to accommodate the new database requirements. They also say collecting data that are tied directly to each student compromises students’ privacy.

“An incredible potential exists for confidential information being used inappropriately,” Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, told The Boston Globe. “There is a Big Brother aspect of all of this that concerns us.”

She added: “I simply don’t believe that statisticians at the Department of Education will have the political power to prevent subsequent use of this [information] by interested parties who will have a lot more sway.”

Jasmine Harris, legislative director for the U.S. Student Association, said her organization opposes the pilot program proposal because it would violate the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, a law that protects student privacy.

“And we feel that the system would be misused,” Harris said. “Considering this current political climate [since Sept. 11, 2001], this kind of data in a single database could be very appealing” to law-enforcement officials.

Harris explained: “There have been instances where one database was created for a particular purpose but used for something else.” The National Directory of New Hires, a database of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was created to track job trends in the U.S. but was later used to track parents who were delinquent in paying child support, she said.

ED, which held three public meetings this past fall with key stakeholders from schools, states, and other interested parties to get feedback and suggestions, says the pilot is meant to examine privacy issues as well as the reporting burden and technical capabilities the plan would require.

Another concern, Harris cited, is that students cannot opt out from participating in the list–and it will cost millions of dollars to implement at a time when budgets everywhere are strapped. “We feel as much money needs to go to student aid as possible, and not a database that [infringes] upon student privacy,” Harris said.

In its original proposal, NCES said the new database system “will be as safe and secure as the systems at [the Internal Revenue Service].”

Currently, 39 states have some form of a student unit record system for higher education, ED said. Many states, particularly Florida and Texas, have database programs in place that track students from kindergarten to the completion of higher education. Tennessee is also in the process of implementing a K-20 data warehouse.

In Florida, Lingenfelter said, policy makers can tell how well students fare in higher education based on the courses they took in high school.

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

National Center on Education Statistics
http://nces.ed.gov

Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Student Unit Record Feasibility Study
http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/trpurs.asp

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association
http://www.sheeo.org

National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities
http://www.naicu.edu

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Museums discovering how technology engages students

The New York Times reports on efforts by the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco to include interactive technology in its exhibits. In one exhibit, visitors can compare a live demonstration with an interactive videotape of previous examples of the same demonstration. The Exploratorium is one of several museums that is looking to be more creative in its use of interactive technology. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Congress: No tax on internet access

State and local governments would be barred from taxing internet connections until at least 2007, under legislation passed by Congress earlier this month.

The move could cut two ways for educators: Though schools would miss out on the additional revenue these taxes might provide, the measure is designed, in part, to encourage the adoption of broadband technologies by consumers–meaning more students potentially could enjoy home internet access as a result.

The bill, which had been stalled for months, was approved by a unanimous vote in the Senate Nov. 17. It passed in the House by a voice vote Nov. 19, and at press time awaited President Bush’s signature.

The measure reinstates a temporary ban that lapsed more than a year ago while lawmakers argued over its extension. It applies to all types of internet-access services–from traditional dial-up services, such as America Online, to high-speed broadband lines from telecommunications carriers and cable providers.

“Today, we have made sure that the avaricious tax commissars from every county, city, and state in America cannot continue conniving new ways to tax the internet and the people who use it,” said Sen. George Allen, R-Va.

Lawmakers sought to make sure that new and evolving internet connections, such as satellite and broadband, got the same treatment as traditional dial-up connections. The plan would not affect sales taxes imposed on merchandise purchased online.

“Renewing this law will protect consumers from a host of new internet taxes on everything from web access to eMail and has saved those online businesses from becoming tax collectors for thousands of jurisdictions,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The House voted last year to permanently ban taxes on internet access, but it could not find enough support to pass the Senate despite a strong push from the telecommunications industry.

Some senators worried about the proposal’s drain on state and local budgets. Others saw provisions that communications companies might try to exploit.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the new measure imposes the ban “while doing minimal harm to state and local governments.”

The agreement clarifies that the ban does not affect the taxation of a new technology–Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP–that allows consumers to make telephone calls using the internet’s backbone.

It also allows states that started taxing internet access before the initial 1998 ban to continue collecting them. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., won a change that ends his state’s internet access taxes in 2006, a year before the temporary ban must be reconsidered.

The measure calls on the handful of states that tax high-speed DSL connections to phase out the levies in two years.

“The nation’s governors are pleased that Congress agreed on this reasonable extension of the previous ban on state and local taxation of internet access,” said Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the National Governor’s Association, in a statement. “The temporary moratorium is fiscally fair and preserves existing state and local government revenues.”

The House passed the bill on the same day the Commerce Department released a report indicating the number of Americans using fast internet connections doubled from 2001 through late 2003–still below some expectations, and especially low among minority groups and people in rural areas.

During his re-election campaign, President Bush advocated affordable access to high-speed internet services for all Americans by 2007.

The Commerce Department report, prepared in September but undisclosed until after the election, said use of fast internet connections grew dramatically through October 2003, to 20 percent of U.S. households. The report praised such services for fueling online banking, entertainment, and commerce.

Some experts said the growth was disappointing, far behind countries that include South Korea, Taiwan, and Canada. The report also identified troubling figures for use or availability of high-speed internet services among blacks, Hispanics, and people in rural areas.

“It shows we continue to have a significant divide between urban and rural America in the infrastructure for the economy of the 21st century,” said Gregory L. Rohde, who was top telecommunications adviser under President Clinton.

Only one in seven blacks–and fewer than one in eight Hispanics–lives in a household with fast internet service, said the report, titled “A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age.”

One in four white Americans uses high-speed connections at home. In urban areas, 40.4 percent of households use fast connections. In rural areas, only 24.7 percent do.

Significant numbers of rural Americans said they couldn’t subscribe to high-speed services because none was available. Most Americans who did not use fast connections said service was either too expensive or they did not need it.

“This [broadband gap] is lousy,” said Harris Miller, head of the Information Technology Association of America, an industry trade group in Washington, D.C. “We’re just not keeping up with our competitors. We’re not even keeping up with countries we don’t consider competitors. It’s not acceptable.”

Links:

Information on S. 150, Internet Tax Non-discrimination Act of 2003

National Governor’s Association

U.S. Department of Commerce

“A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Age”

Information Technology Association of America

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$30,000 for exemplary school library media programs

Sponsored by Follett Library Resources, this award recognizes exemplary school library media programs in three categories: large school district (over 10,000 students), small school district (under 10,000 students), and single school. The winners in each of the three categories will receive $10,000, plus a crystal obelisk.

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Up to $5,000 to fund classroom innovations or professional development

The National Education Association’s National Foundation for the Improvement of Education (NFIE) now offers more than 300 small grants of $2,000 to $5,000 each on an ongoing, year-round basis. These grants fund classroom innovations or professional development for improved practice in public K-12 schools and higher-education institutions. NFIE will award up to 250 Innovation grants worth $5,000 per year and 75 Leadership & Learning grants ranging between $2,000 and $5,000. Grants will fund activities for 12 months from the date of the award. Applications are received three times per year. Schools whose applications are received by Feb. 1 will know by June 15 if they are approved.

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